Ireland has never known what to do with the sustainable communities agenda. Whilst concepts such as ‘sustainable communities’, ‘social capital’, ‘community cohesion’, and ‘civic pride’ emerged in the United Kingdom and the United States firmly against the backdrop of Blair and Clinton’s commitment to building a new Third Way, in Ireland these ideas were largely imported, taken to be important, but rarely thought through and certainly not underpinned by a coherent political philosophy.

In Ireland, sustaining communities has been variously taken to mean anything from regenerating deprived inner city neighbourhoods, protecting traditional Irish towns against the tidal forces of development and counter urbanisation, experimenting with new towns (most recently the Special Development Zones symbolised by Adamstown),  manicuring gentrified inner city zones through cosmopolitan dressage and boho-chic imagery, reducing tensions in neighbourhoods between low wage migrant groups and combating Irish racism, forging new links between Irish and British villages and towns along the Northern Irish border, and cultivating new networks and connections between the Irish diaspora and Ireland.

It is generally assumed that the sustainable communities agenda might have been dealt a fatal blow this past year – the crash will finish off any community building activity which may have lingered. And of course one of the most significant secretions of the crash has been the soulless and half filled ghost town. At night residents of these estates light up their patch as a pitiful, broken, and intermittent lantern – a metaphor for disconnection and community degeneration and fragmentation. It is assumed that families living in these estates simply cannot plant roots and germinate into a complex mosaic of community relations.

Surely the ghost estate is evidence writ large that it makes no sense literally to speak of vibrant and sustainable communities in Ireland after Nama? But for a moment, and as a thought experiment, let us hypothesise that it might just be the crash of the Irish economy and the spectacular demise of the Irish property sector in particular that will serve to galvanise a stronger and more coherent political and conceptual foundation for the sustainable communities agenda.

Let us consider the community building which is currently taking place in the ghost estates in more detail. The following negative, damaging, and wounding processes are certainly at work:

a)    Residents living cheek by jowl who have paid significantly different amounts for their homes depending upon when they bought, with some residents living in five bedroom detached houses who last week paid significantly less than their neighbour who is living in a three bedroom semi-detached or terrace house bought at the peak.
b)    Residents struggling to source members and resources for weakened, lethargic, and inept Residents Committees.
c)    Local fees for estate management and lighting are now excessive as they have to be distributed among fewer than expected residents. The aesthetic quality of estates, not least their public spaces, suffer as developers struggle to keep the annual residents fees down.
d)    Estates ostensibly set up for private sale are now offering a quantity of housing for rent and indeed are allocating proportions to the social rented sector. A more transient and complex socio-economically mixed population is resulting.
e)    Speculators who bought housing as investments are now forced to turn housing into alternative functions with at least some potential for return, for instance a local crèche.
f)    Residents are now earning less than they expected at the time of purchase and are living in significant negative equity. They are trapped in the ghost town but have no opportunity of escaping, even for a job opportunity elsewhere. Moreover, it could be 30 years before their property will return to the value it reached when they bought at the peak.

These are processes which have the potential to destroy and undermine communities.

But dare we speculate further?  These processes may also have the potential of forcing people to rethink the meaning of their home as:

– a place to raise families and to socialise with friends rather than to gather equity;
– as a place where necessity is indeed the mother of invention and where exciting innovations in the structures and strategies of resident groups are occurring;
– as a foundation for a new sense of civic pride and proactive involvement in the carte and maintenance of ones ecumene;
– as a site for innovative sorts of social and cultural mixing that would never have taken place during the boom;
– as a place where new services are emerging which may serve socially useful functions;
– as an antidote to the nihilistic nomadism fostered by global mobility.

These estates are places where developers have been stripped to the bone of their pride and arrogance and where customer (after) care and the needs of potentially new residents enjoys a new authority.

Does such thinking betray a desperate search for consolation and redemption in an emerging series of empty, alienating and barren housing landscapes? Probably. But it does suggest that at the very least the ghost estates now dogging the Irish landscape might provide fascinating insights into how novel and unexpected communities might come into existence by a historically unique thrown-togetherness of people, buildings, money, and land. These estates beget longitudinal research from here on in, tracking the ways in which communities are forming, dissolving, battling, agitating, and occasionally winning out despite the odds.

Critical human geographers influenced by traditions of scholarship within Western Marxism have long been concerned the march of commodified, and bureaucratised space and its existential, emotional, and humanistic implications. Indeed in Geographical Imaginations Derek Gregory identifies this concern as potentially significant enough to constitute a framework for the entire tradition of critical human geography. The colonisation of everyday life by the empires of abstract space has become a rallying cry for a new endeavour to peel back the layers of capitalist spatiality to reclaim a less alienated and more authentic set of relations between people and space.

But where are the imperial pretensions of abstract space amidst the broken landscapes of  the ghost estates? Perhaps the veneer of the invincibility of this march has been temporarily halted and abstract space has been shamed into confessing what many critical human geographers know – we are not condemned to live in one dimensional and serialised landscapes! It might be in the ghost towns that place snatches a surprising if likely temporary victory over space. Newness has to enter the world somewhere. Expect the unexpected!

Mark Boyle

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